Moral Cognition, Neuroethics and Neurolaw Research Cluster

Moral Cognition, Neuroethics and Neurolaw Research Cluster

Neuroethics and neurolaw are new fields which have arisen in response to developments in cognitive neuroscience. This cluster engages in interdisciplinary, collaborative research that investigates the impact and theoretical implications of developments in cognitive neuroscience for our understanding of the elements of human moral cognition, of the capacities (such as self-control) which subserve moral and legal responsibility, and for conceptions of agency, free will, human nature, and moral competence.

Our research has led to the formation of the Australian Neurolaw Database, which is now a joint project with The University of Sydney Law School.

Current projects

Australian Neurolaw Database (2011-)

Jeanette Kennett (Project Leader), Nicole Vincent, Sascha Callaghan, Allan McCay, Elizabeth Schier, Chris Rudge, Armin Alimardani

Macquarie University Research Fellowship; Macquarie University's Centre for Agency and Values Bridging Funding; Macquarie University MQ Strategic Infrastructure Support Grant; Sydney University's SyReNs Sydney Neuroscience Network

Summary: The Australian Neurolaw Database began in Macquarie University’s Philosophy Department in 2011 when  Nicole Vincent was researching the use and impact of neuroscientific evidence in criminal law where it is most often used in sentencing to mitigate responsibility. In 2015, Macquarie University began a collaboration with the Law School at the University of Sydney, where Dr Sascha Callaghan was researching the use of neuroscience in civil law, where it is used for example to establish dementia or suffering.  With support from an MQSIS grant the database was launched in November 2015.

The aim of this database is to provide legal practitioners, academics, and anyone interested in neurolaw, a place where important Australian case law (and original summaries) can be found. Our research also involves detailed coding for relevant data that capture the flow of neuroscientific evidence within each case. We are in the process of analysing these to test various hypothesis regarding the uses of neuroscience and the differences that neuroscientific evidence makes in the courtroom.

Australian Neurolaw Database Project website

Conscience and Conscientious Objection (2015-2017)

Stephen P. Clarke, Jeanette M. Kennett, and Julian Savulescu

ARC Discovery Project. (2015-2017) Funding: $333,333

Summary: Medical professionals sometimes decline to provide particular forms of safe, beneficial and legal health care, on the grounds that provision would go against their consciences. Bioethicists and policy makers have failed to identify legitimate limits to the scope of appeals to conscientious objection in health care. This is in large part because the underlying concept ''conscience" is unclear. This project aims to advance bioethical debate by producing a philosophically and psychologically informed analysis of conscience, and by applying this to discussions about the legitimate limits to conscientious objection in health care. It is expected to result in academic and non-academic publications and enable improvements to Australian health care policy.

Completed projects

Sexism in scientific and pseudo-scientific explanations of sex inequality: An empirical, ethical and educative approach (2011-2015)

Cordelia Fine

ARC Future Fellowship (2011-2015). Awarded: $537,308

Summary: Today, as in the past, scientific claims about sex differences in the brain are drawn upon to explain and justify sex inequalities in society. Such conclusions are scientifically premature, and lead to confident popular claims that have potential for self-fulfilling effects and other negative consequences. The project will expand our knowledge of the consequences of beliefs and information about supposed hardwired differences between the sexes, and provide an account of the ethical responsibilities of scientists who work in this field. In addition, the quality of both scientific research and public understanding will be improved, through education and engagement of the scientific community and wider society.

Reapprasing the Capacitarian Foundation of Neurolaw: on the Assessment, Restoration and Enhancement of Responsibility (2011-2013)

Nicole Vincent

Macquarie University Research Fellowship. (2011-2013) Funding: $46,906

Summary: This philosophy of law project will investigate the theoretical potential for psychopharmaceuticals and other brain interventions to restore and enhance responsibility by amplifying mental capacities. This will shed new light on our "capacitarian" understanding of how responsibility relates to mental capacity, and that in turn will illuminate the conceptual soundness of some recent suggestions by "neurolaw" proponents that brain scans capable of revealing people's mental capacities could in principle help courts to more accurately assess responsibility. This project will also provide the first appraisal of how neuroscience is used in legal settings in Australia and New Zealand.

Emotions, Imagination and Moral Reasoning (2012)

Robyn Langdon and Catriona Mackenzie

Summary: This project brings together philosophical perspectives on the role of emotions and imagination in moral cognition with psychological findings from the neurosciences, cognitive sciences, social psychology, personality theory, and developmental psychology. Among the issues and the questions examined are the following: What can we learn about the importance of empathic responsiveness in moral cognition by studying typically developing young children, young children and adolescents with callous-unemotional traits, and adults from the general community with psychopathic tendencies? What are the theoretical implications for moral philosophy of recent experimental research on emotions and moral reasoning in the neurosciences, cognitive science and social psychology? Conversely, do the existing theoretical frameworks and experimental methodologies in empirical moral psychology do justice to the normative dimensions of moral discourse and to the complexity of everyday moral reflection? How might these theoretical frameworks and experimental methodologies be improved, with collaborative input from researchers across the various disciplines involved in moral cognition research?

Addiction, Moral Identity and Moral Agency: Integrating Theoretical and Empirical Approaches (2010-2012)

(Joint project with Human Agency and Selfhood cluster)

Jeanette Kennett, Steve Matthews and Craig Fry

ARC Discovery Project (2010-2012).

Summary: Recent scientific advances are clarifying the role of the brain in drug addiction and the impact of drug use on judgment, self-control and behaviour. This project seeks to examine the impact of addiction on the moral self-conception, practical identity, and values, of drug addicted persons themselves and compare it to perceptions currently informing treatment. It will test and refine philosophical accounts of the elements of responsible agency and self-control against the neuroscientific data and other empirical work, and develop a set of recommendations for ethical and effective public policies and practices in the addictions field.

Implicit persuasion in pharmaceutical marketing: ethical implications for regulators and consumers (2010-2012)

Paul Biegler, Jeanette Kennett, Justin Oakley.

ARC Discovery Project (2010-2012). Awarded $449,000.

Neuroethics: The practical and the philosophical (2007-2009)

Neil Levy and Jeanette Kennett

ARC Discovery Project (2007-2009). Awarded $185,000.

Summary: The benefits of the project are twofold: practically, it will enable us to better regulate, personally and socially, the new technologies that the sciences of the mind are already producing; intellectually, it will enable us to better understand human agency in the light of the new knowledge generated by the sciences of the mind, and it will help to maintain Australia's reputation as an international leader in applied ethics and in philosophy of mind and agency.

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